Conspiracy theories gain acceptance through blind trust in social media

PULLMAN, Wash. — Conspiracy beliefs are solidified by people who fully trust the information they see on social media platforms, a recent study finds. A conspiracy is a belief that an event (often historical) occurred because of some larger, nefarious plan. Although they are usually false theories, researchers from Washington State University say that the more trust people put in information they find on the web, the more likely they are to believe in such theories.

The study also finds that those who are skeptical about things they see on social media are more likely to spot misinformation. Conversely, those who fully trust information on social media seem to “blindly” trust it, regardless of finding misinformation in the posts. The team discovered this is especially true of those who believe in conspiracy theories regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as those who believe in conspiracy theories prior to the virus outbreak.

“There was some good and bad news in this study,” explains Porismita Borah, an associate professor in WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, in a university release. “The good news is that you are less susceptible to conspiracy theories if you have some media literacy skills, one of which is being able to identify misinformation. But if you blindly trust the information you find on social media, those skills might not be able to help.”

Media literacy helps spot misinformation

Being “media literate” includes a working knowledge of social media networks, as well as having the ability to identify misinformation. Prof. Borah acknowledged a lack of media literacy can lead to believing in conspiracy theories.

The team of researchers used the Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing site from Amazon to gather 760 participants for the study. Approximately 50 percent were Democrats and 50 percent were Republican, as well as an even split of males and females. Facebook users made up 63.1 percent of the poll, with another 47.3 percent using Twitter every day.

Participants completed a survey to test their level of media literacy. Questions included the use of social media news and trust toward information on social media. There were also questions to test each participant’s ability to pick out misinformation on these platforms.

Participants also had to gauge the level of truth behind multiple conspiracy theories, including the accusation that the COVID-19 virus was purposely developed as a means of destroying other countries. The group also evaluated the truth of theories prior to COVID-19, like the “hoax moon landing” theory and the theory that the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) of Britain allegedly killed Princess Diana.

Results indicated that those who have a greater level of media literacy are better at picking out misinformation, helping to diminish any belief in conspiracy theories. Those who trust information on social media sites are not as good at identifying misinformation and they also exhibit stronger beliefs in conspiracies. According to previous research, it is difficult to persuade a “conspiracy theorist” otherwise once they believe in a theory, making these results troublesome.

“The patterns around trust is one of the most important findings from our study,” Prof. Borah adds. “We need to go deeper into what this trust means.”

Are politicians to blame for conspiracy theories?

Prof. Borah and her team, including WSU’s Xizhu Xiao, Ph.D. and doctoral student Yan Su, believe that politics may be a determining factor in this type of “blind trust.” Many people follow and trust political figures out of admiration, even if they don’t always speak the truth. The team plans to conduct further studies to try and understand the appeal of these types of theories.

“There are different levels of danger with these theories, but one of the prominent conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19 is that it isn’t true, that the virus is a hoax and that can be really dangerous: you’re putting yourself, your family members, and your community at risk,” Prof. Borah continues.

The team suggests the incorporation of media literacy in primary schools to teach kids at an early age how to identify and interpret misinformation within social media and news outlets. Additionally, Prof. Borah and her team suggest educating people on the manipulation of information and how that information spreads.

“There’s a long list of tasks to do to keep ourselves well informed,” Prof. Borah concludes. “I think there is hope with media literacy and a better understanding of the information environment, but it is a complicated process.”

This study is published in the journal Public Understanding of Science.